Commedia Unbound

Article excerpt

As a self-proclaimed reformer of the 18th-century theatre, Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) made a conscious attempt to revise the old and, to his eyes, floundering commedia dell'arte tradition into something more naturalistic and recognizably modern. He persuaded actors to use scripted material rather than improvisation as their focus, and his characters eventually shed their commedia masks as he moved them away from the stock figures of that tradition. Yet his discerning awareness of the old form, along with resistance he encountered from the established theatrical community, restrained him from eliminating commedia from his work altogether. Despite his remarkable changes, the process of transition was long and arduous. Goldoni's plays are often laced with delightful commedia episodes even as they break new ground in structure and content.

The improvisational aspect of commedia, however, has kept even experts guessing as to the true nature of the form. For his first foray into Goldoni's highly stylized world, translator and director Stephen Wadsworth - who moved from directing opera to the theatre in 1992 with his own adaptation of 18th-century French writer Marivaux's The Triumph of Love at Princeton, N.J.'s McCarter Theatre - has chosen the masterwork La Locandiera (The Landlady), or Mirandolina. The production runs at the McCarter March 14-April 2.

An innkeeper and four men

Unlike many plays by Goldoni, Mirandolina is set in Florence rather than his native Venice, and was written in Tuscan, not Venetian dialect. It centers on a strong, charismatic and somewhat manipulative innkeeper (played at the McCarter by Mary Lou Rosato) and her effect on the four men in her life. Goldoni's extraordinary achievement in Mirandolina is his promotion of the stock serving-woman character of earlier Italian drama into the leading lady of his play - a step with enormous social implications. With this transformation, the playwright could simultaneously explore and reflect the shifting dynamics between the emerging middle class and the decaying old order.

Yet Goldoni does not entirely overturn tradition. Mirandolina's final act - she marries the man of both her own and her dead father's choice - is at once a triumph and a reinforcement of established values. Like Kate's marriage to Petruchio in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, this union has its confining as well as liberating effects on her life.

Goldoni's choice for comic diversion, or lazzi - the comic business derived from commedia, which is often omitted in English translations - is significant. As a foil to the clever Mirandolina, he introduces two characters (retained by Wadsworth in his adaptation) - actresses who pretend to be noblewomen. Ironically, however, Mirandolina turns out to be a "better" actress than her professional counterparts. She consciously deceives and entraps the men with her cunning, but also with her honesty, and is a far more subtle and psychologically realistic figure than those around her.

Wadsworth's goal for this production is "to try to get a sense of completeness, the sense of everything that Mirandolina is: lazzi and naturalism. …